Thursday, June 24, 2021
Dr. Alexander Had a Hand in Making Sure Others’ Hands Were Healthy
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Dr. Charlotte Alexander was the Wood River Valley’s only hand surgeon up until recently.
   
Wednesday, May 5, 2021
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

Dr. Charlotte Alexander learned early on that her new Sun Valley patients were not the run-of-the-mill patients.

“Most interesting to me is how motivated people are here. I learned right off the bat that I had to protect people from themselves, from what they were going to do,” she said, noting the local athletes who are driven to pursue their favorite activities even while rehabbing an injury.

Alexander recounted the case of a climber who tore a collateral ligament in his hand that was forcing him to wear a splint and cast for four weeks, then a brace for another four weeks.

 
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Her surgical team made her a crown and flowers out of her favorite colored casting material to commemorate her last surgery—all documented here by the surgical staff.
 

“He said, ‘I’m ice climbing Borah in five days, and I’m going no matter what,’ ” she recalled. “I learned that it was important to ask people what they were planning on doing. I learned that not only did I need to explain the risks but I practically had to have a contract so they didn’t do bad things to themselves.”

Alexander won’t have to worry about reining in her patients anymore as she’ll be busy pursuing her own passions.

The hand surgeon has retired after 23 years of reattaching severed fingers, addressing carpal tunnel syndrome and repairing broken bones in Sun Valley.

“She has put back together many, many people’s wrists, hands and more throughout our valley, making a huge difference in their lives,” acknowledged one grateful fan. “She operated on my dad’s wrist, which looked like a dust bowl after he fell skating. Due to her skill and his determination, he fully recovered with 100% mobility!” 

 
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Dr. Charlotte Alexander's beloved golden retriever is about to get a lot busier as she accompanies Mom jogging and hiking on Sun Valley's trails.
 

Alexander graduated from Medical College of Georgia School of Medicine in 1977 and went on to serve as director of Hand Surgery at the Residency Training Program at the Naval Medical Center in Oakland.

“Originally, I thought I’d go into general surgery, but I became fascinated by the very intricate anatomy involved in hands and wrists,” said Alexander, who was a Captain when she retired from the Navy. “Hands have to do more intricate delicate stuff than knee joints.  And, if you look at ER visits, more people come in with bone trauma and soft tissue injuries to hands due to their work.”

Alexander is quick to sing the praises of the hand, which contains some of the densest areas of nerve endings in the body, boasts 27 bones despite its small size and is the richest source of tactile feedback in the entire body.

“Hands are your attachment to the world,” she added. “Hands do things the rest of your body can’t. You can’t play piano with your toes.”

Before coming to Sun Valley, Alexander served 20 years on active duty in the U.S. Navy—fortunate, she said, to have started after Vietnam. She had 18 years in by Desert Storm.

“And that was really a fire drill,” she said.

Still, she did see some trauma associated with practice drills. Among them, a Navy man whose tool box was sucked into an aircraft carrier, along with his hand.

That served her well when her daughter Amy called to tell her of the horrendous things she was seeing during an orthopedic stint at Walter Reed National Military Center where the Navy was shipping soldiers who had been wounded in Iraq.

At one point, Amy told how she was caring for 14 patients in intensive care—and the oldest was 20. Among them, an 18-year-old who had a short amputation on one arm, a shoulder amputation on another side, an open hip and an amputation above the knee. He couldn’t close his eyes, Amy told her, because his face was burned.

“I said, ‘What you’re doing is trying to help this person—don’t worry about why he’s there,” Alexander recalled. “I told her, ‘That’s a lot to take in. But you’re getting good experience in the trauma rotation, and you’re not going to see this down the road.’ ”

When it came time to retire from the Navy, Dr. Alexander’s husband--Dr. Herb Alexander—considered several academic positions. But none of the places held any attraction.

“We wanted to live where we wanted to live. We wanted to work where we wanted to live,” said Alexander. “We certainly didn’t want to work at Long Island Jewish Medical Center where we’d have a two-hour commute every day.”

The couple didn’t have to think twice about Sun Valley where they had attended several medical conferences.

“We had had a place in Tahoe and the kids were in ski racing so Sun Valley was perfect,” Alexander said. “And we’ve loved every minute. It’s a place where we can have our cake and eat it, too.”

Alexander had just returned to her practice at St. Luke’s Wood River following a hip replacement when the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the hospital and its auxiliary services. She surveyed  patients’ fingers via FaceTime, prescribing home remedies given the difficulty of securing splints and other materials early in the pandemic.

“One guy said, ‘I have a shoehorn I can use as a splint. And I can cut it down.’ And I said, ‘Please don’t cut your hand open doing that!’ ”

Given the amount of construction and carpentry that goes on in the valley, Alexander has seen plenty of sliced fingers, including those of one man who reached back over his shoulder to shut off his saw and split two fingers perfectly lengthwise. And she has learned to expect a parade of older people with fractures as soon as conditions turn icy in winter.

Arthritis is one of the most common complaints, she said. But, if all other remedies fail, it can be remedied by taking out some bone and putting in a tendon so the thumb doesn’t hurt anymore.

“A lot of people tell me they can’t pull weeds without pain, anymore. I tell them, ‘Save yourself for things you like to do and get someone else to pull the weeds. Use a small shovel. Or hire someone—it’s cheaper than surgery.’ ”

Alexander notes that medicine has come a long way since she started 43 years ago.

“I was in the second year of my residency when they introduced knee arthroscopy, which allows doctors to view the knee joint via a camera so they don’t have to cut a large incision in the skin and soft tissues,” she said. “I did one of the first double toe-to-thumb transplants for someone who had a thumb amputation. And now they’re using chemical enzymes to avoid surgery.”

With increased time on her hands, Alexander plans to do more cross-country skiing and hikes and runs with her golden retriever. She admits she may have bit off more than she can chew by putting in a greenhouse. And she’s been sewing piles of quilts, baby blankets, crib sheets and pillows for her grandchildren, along with a stack of facemasks that depict her philosophy toward life with slogans like “Adventure awaits.”

When the pandemic is over, she wants to see her grandchildren in Okinawa.

“And, of course, I hope one day we can get back to singing in the Caritas Chorale.”

 

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